Experiments in wearable electronic art.


Lessons From Burning Man 2012

The creation of truly wearable art really is an iterative process. Last year I had a short list of takeaways from the original Anthrolume 1.0 experience, the most important of which were:

  1. Make the next suit “hug-friendly.”
  2. It’s cold in the high desert at night! Design the suit for cold weather.
  3. Design for cable stresses.
  4. Get as many chargers as you have batteries.

Suit At Burning Man

Anthrolume in action

The good news is that on most fronts, Anthrolume 2.0 really was a spectactularly more successful piece than the 1.0 suit. All of the above except (3) were well addressed. The new suit was hug-friendly and I was glad for that – I can’t count how many serious bear-hugs I got. The overalls were warm because I could wear whatever I wanted underneath. And I had 12 batteries and 12 chargers – parallel charging is great!

Cable stresses, however, did continue to dog me this year. In fact, it was worse than last year. So the revised lesson is: if you’re going to create wearable art, wear it! The reason I didn’t discover my cable stress points was because the suit spent a lot of time hanging from a microphone stand on a hanger, instead of on my body. Lesson learned.

I ended up field-replacing four LEDs while I was at the Burn. But after that, the suit worked like a champ, including the abuse I put it through getting up onto the scaffolding at the 2:00 rave and two hours of straight dancing that night.

Also the 12 batteries performed well – 6-7 hours of continuous animation playback. Of course I wished for more – next year I’ll bring extra batteries.

I also learned more about which animations work and which don’t. Since my suit is really just an animation-playback platform, I’ll take that wisdom forward to improve how the suit looks in the future.

Other random observations:

  • CoolNeon LEDs are mostly playa proof.
  • Having pockets in the suit was great. I had to add special wiring extensions for that, and boy am I glad I did.
  • The cut-washer method of attaching the LEDs worked great – not a single washer came off the entire Burn.

I’m still working on Animaker. More to report soon.


Burning Man debut just days away!

I’ve gone dark since my first animation demo because I’ve been pouring nearly every waking hour into either the software components of the suit or preparing animations for the suit using my Animaker software.

I shipped the physical Anthrolume 2.0 suit to Berkeley a couple of weeks ago, before I headed off to Bora Bora for a vacation. During the time I was on that beautiful island (when I wasn’t snorkeling, swimming, sunning, etc.) I created about 115 animations. I also made signficant improvements to my Animaker software.

Animaker in action

Animaker in action

On the top left is a Flash animation I created using a relatively inexpensive but quite powerful Flash animation package called SWiSH (no affiliation). The red circles represent the points at which the software will sample the video to create the animation. On the right is one frame of the animation that was sampled from the Flash movie. I put the output files from Animaker onto a micro-SD card that plugs into the Arduino Mega microcontroller on the Anthrolume suit’s belt. That computer plays back the animation frames into the LEDs of the suit.

I will continue to make new animations even while I’m on the playa at Burning Man. I’ve got a Flip video camera with me so I’ll have quality video this time, not just of me, but of my entire whack Prismaticamp crew, when I return from the Burn.

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First animation demo

I’ve been slaving over the software and I can finally demonstrate a few animations running on the suit. These animations barely scratch the surface of what I can do – for instance, these animations don’t try to do anything that will sync with music. I threw these together with the software I described in the last post. There will be many more to come, and hopefully much better looking. But it’s fun to see in action.


Animation software working!

Over the last four days I wrote two programs that I’ll be using to produce the animations that will be presented on Anthrolume, which I’ll describe here.

In Anthrolume 1.0, I had 50 LEDs. I wrote small animation step functions that calculated the colors of all the LEDs for each frame of the animation, and sent commands out to the LEDs to change their colors, fade, etc. This worked because, for one thing, my old LEDs were really smart (e.g. I could say, effectively, “LED #12! Fade from red to blue over the next 200 milliseconds!” and he’d go do that.) The other factor was that there just weren’t that many LEDs.

For the new suit, there’s just too damn many LEDs to manually program them. Additionally, these CoolNeon LEDs are dumber. I have to tell all the LEDs to be new colors all at once, and after that they’ll stay that color, but there aren’t any fancy commands. I basically need to set the colors for every LED 20 times a second. That’s where my software comes in.



PointCollector establishes suit LED coordinates

PointCollector’s job is to establish Cartesian coordinates for each LED, and to record the exact order they appear in the strand. To help with this, I prepared a composite photograph of my suit’s front and back, which I import into PointCollector as a background image. Then for each LED, in order, I used the software to record the relative (x, y) location of each LED. This collection of points is the scaffolding upon which the animations are projected.

By using different Cartesian arrangements of the LEDs, I can get different animation effects. In a future post I’ll describe this and show some examples. For most animations, though, I use the rather literal Cartesian mapping shown here.



Animaker samples Flash animations into the suit

Animaker takes a Flash animation, the point list from PointCollector, and some other data, and samples the frames of a 2D Flash animation into the suit.

The points from PointCollector are shown as red circles on a still frame from the Flash animation. Using the mouse, I can move, resize, and rotate the points as a unit to wherever on the animation frame I want. Once I’m satisfied, I record, which basically picks up the color from the animation frame that corresponds to each LED, for each frame of the animation. Once that data is collected, it can be written to a file that is directly consumable by the Anthrolume suit computer.

The translate/scale/rotate part turns out to create a lot of possibilities. If I make a simple animation of a vertical line moving across the frame, but rotate the points to be sideways, the resulting animation seen on the suit appears to move diagonally, even though the original animation was vertical. (You can see that effect in the screenshot.)

The software shown here is really abysmal. It works, and it will get the job done for Burning Man, but it is what you get for four days work. I am really looking forward to seeing where I can take this software later.

Over the next few weeks I’ll be busy cranking out 2D animations using a Flash animation package and turning them into suit animations. I’ve also got some other tricks up my sleeve to show in a week or so.

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All LEDs mounted

Front of suit

The suit with all LEDs permanently mounted.

Over the weekend I finished mounting the LEDs. The physical fabrication is mostly complete except for a few niggles: I have two LEDs whose blue channels are intermittent, so I’ll have to cut those out and replace them, but I can do that later. Also the pockets are blocked by wires inside the suit, so I will probably add some wire extensions inside the suit so I can still use the pockets. I had to cut the zipper out of the suit, which I’ll replace with iron-on Velcro. Finally I need to cut some little “U”s into the zipper flap so the middle column of chest LEDs is visible.

I’m running out of time, so I’m coding furiously on the animation software. I finished the “PointCollector” program that I used to establish Cartesian coordinates for all the LEDs and now I’m working on the “Animaker” software that uses those coordinates to sample video, animation, and other motion media. Video demos as soon as I have something good.

Final thought: If Elvis had this suit, he would have been way more popular, and possibly motivated to eat less bacon.

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HOWTO: Mount CoolNeon Total Control Lighting LEDs into a garment

In this 3:20 video I describe a method for mounting CoolNeon Total Control Lighting LEDs (the rectangular-body kind) into a garment. The method is designed to:

  • hide the wiring
  • keep the garment from fraying at the points where the LEDs emerge
  • be water-resistant
  • have good reflectivity properties

It should work with any fabric that can support the weight of the LEDs and mounting hardware, but heavier fabrics will work better. Post questions if you’ve got ’em.

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Soldering irons. How do they work?

I’ve been soldering things since I was in junior high school, and…that was a long time ago. I’m good at it. I haven’t had a soldering injury for fifteen years. But when you do most of your soldering between midnight and 2am, you’re bound to make a mistake sooner or later.

So allow me to summarize the advantages and disadvantages of getting intimate with your soldering iron:

Advantages Disadvantages
Wound is sterile due to high temperature. Disconcerting burned-human-flesh smell.
Wound doesn’t bleed due to instant cauterization. Hurts like a motherf****r.
Leaves a mark.

So given all that, I’m going to have to go out on a limb and officially not recommend stabbing oneself with a precision 18W soldering iron as I did last night. The more you know.

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Over the weekend I finished up the power wiring for the suit and did tests with the suit running exclusively off battery power. The astonishing part is just how much energy 250 RGB LEDs can use. This table shows LED color (in HTML #rrggbb format) with corresponding power consumption in amps and watts. A dim color (like #010000, which is the dimmest possible red) will use less energy than a bright color (like #ff0000, the brightest possible red). Using more than one of red, green, and blue, also uses more energy. The most energy consumption comes from #ffffff, which is the brightest white the LEDs can produce. Sadly my batteries can’t put out enough power for me to run the suit that bright.

Color Amps Watts @8V Comments
#000000 0.18 1.4634 No light – power consumed by LED driver chips
#FF0000 5.43 44.1459 Maximum brightness red
#00FF00 5.36 43.5768 Maximum brightness green
#0000FF 5.35 43.4955 Maximum brightness blue
#7F7F7F 7.81 63.4953 Half brightness white, as much as my batteries can handle

So at half-brightness white, my suit pulls an amazing 8 amps at 8.13V, or about 64 watts. More than a standard 60-watt lightbulb. Fortunately the suit makes more light than a dinosaur incandescent lightbulb, plus can generate any colors I want and animate at 40 frames per second.

I’m currently constructing the final circuit board that mates the daughterboards (XBee, Bluetooth, and micro-SD reader) to the Arduino Mega. That will probably be done by Wednesday.

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Power belt completed

Wednesday night I finished fabricating the belt I will wear inside the Anthrolume 2.0 suit. It is an iteration of the belt I built for the original Anthrolume suit and reuses most of the materials from that belt.

The new belt holds 12 LiPoly batteries in two separate power circuits, and has a new power consolidation and distribution box that mounts near the middle of my back to send power to various points within the long strand of 250 LEDs mounted into the fabric of the suit, and to the Arduino/radios.

Here’s a short video showing the parts of the belt.